'Different' Emeka Egbuka won't accept anything short of greatness

On3 imageby:Jeremy Birmingham12/14/20


STEILACOOM, Wash. — Emeka Egbuka doesn’t mind being told he’s abnormal.

He gets it. He knows he’s different. From the moment he was an 8-year-old national champion in Major League Baseball’s Pitch, Hit and Run competition to the first time he lined up against his current group of peers in a national recruiting combine, the truth was hard to ignore with Egbuka.

Athletically, he’s different. Personally, he’s different.

It’s a badge of honor, not a black mark. He knows no other way.

“I knew I was different when I started getting around other recruits,” Egbuka told Lettermen Row on Thursday. “It might be something that had to do with Washington and where we grew up.”

Egbuka is humble, but he’s not timid. He’s confident, but not arrogant. Everything he is can be traced back to the town of DuPont, Wash. Pop. 9503.

Roots run deep for Emeka Egbuka

“The high school Emeka is at, I graduated from,” Rhonda Ogilvie, Egbuka’s mother, told Lettermen Row. “We have deep roots here. I was not born here — my dad was in the Navy and I was born in San Diego — but I was raised here since age two. I have two older siblings, everybody lives here.”

Ogilvie’s father, Ronald Frederick, is the Mayor of DuPont. He didn’t spend his life in politics, but chose to run for office because he thought it was the best chance to make sure his grandchildren grew up in a place they’d be safe — a place they’d be able to be whatever they dreamt of being.

“He only ran for mayor because his we live in the city,” Emeka said, voice breaking. “He wants to see it and us taken care of. So, I mean, that didn’t go unnoticed. My grandparents just mean a lot to me. My Nana cooks for me all the time. My Papa means a lot to not just me, but to everyone in our city.”

The country’s No. 1-ranked receiver made his college commitment on Ronald’s 50th wedding anniversary. It was his way of honoring his roots, but it underlines who the latest Ohio State commitment is at his core.

“He’s just a very thoughtful kid — even though it was Tuesday when he made his decision, he wanted to brighten someone else’s day,” Steilacoom coach Colby Davies told Lettermen Row. “In this particular situation, it was his grandparents. That’s just the type of kid he is. He never really wants it to just be about him. He’s trying to bring others along, but also to recognize others and help in those situations where he can.

“It’s just another example of why he’s so special. He’s so humble and never wants to be the center of attention.”

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Emeka Egbuka and his family after a state title game in his junior season. (Rhonda Ogilvie/Courtesy)

Competitive nature runs in family

On the field, the things that make Emeka Egbuka special are more obvious. Perhaps to his chagrin, it’s made him the center of attention.

He earned his first offer during his freshman season, and after Florida State got the ball rolling, Egbuka racked up 34 more. He’s 6-foot-1 and a muscular 210 pounds. He runs the 40-yard-dash in less than 4.45 seconds and his vertical leap is close to 40 inches. There’s not a lot he couldn’t do athletically.

And there’s not a single competition he won’t compete in.

“We have that competitive nature in our family,” Ogilvie said. “That’s with everything, like it’s not just sports, you know? No matter what we’re doing, there’s a competition.

“We were celebrating my parents anniversary last year — he and I both have this trick where we can balance a spoon on our nose — and so we did that at the table. It was like: Who is gonna last the longest? Then this kid gets up and starts walking around the table with the spoon on his nose, and it’s not falling off. So he wins, of course. And I was sitting there like: ‘Wow, give me a break.'”

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Ohio State commit Emeka Egbuka passing on his talents to his younger brother Keanan. (Rhonda Ogilvie/Courtesy)

When someone is used to winning all the time, the very idea of losing becomes impossible. Growing up, Emeka and his father Henry would compete just as he and his mother would.  Henry is a former high-level soccer player who kept his son humble, besting him on the track as a sprinter, never surrendering … until it was time to surrender.

“I played a lot of sports, used to play soccer and stuff,” Henry Egbuka told Lettermen Row. “Emeka and I used to sprint against each other until he turned 16. When he was 14-years-old, I’d still speed by him a little bit, right? But he was catching up real fast and I told him he’d have to get to at least 16-years-old to be competitive enough to beat me. But he was 15 and that sucker was getting faster, right? I knew he’d beat me by the time he turned 16, so I just stopped.”

“So now we have a ping pong table at home, and he wants to beat me at that.”

Competitive nature is inherited. Emeka Egbuka has it, and it is second nature to him. Being the best isn’t merely an option, but a requirement. That comes from Henry, a Nigerian immigrant who taught his son Proverbial wisdom and instilled in him a passion for hard work.

“I taught him growing up to respect his elders, and to remind him that pride comes before the fall,” Henry said. “But that doesn’t mean we have to be timid. We work as hard as we can, and then we keep going. I don’t think you can find a harder working kid anywhere. Every time I see him, he is looking at YouTube, watching routes and learning. His favorite pastime is talking to coaches, talking technical jargon with them, you know? He loves that kind of stuff. He eats it. He dreams it.

“He believes he can be competitive anywhere. Some people want to try and make it to the one school, right? Or to make it to NFL, you know? Not ‘Meka. He says: ‘I don’t just want to make it to the NFL. I don’t just want to make it to the first round. I don’t want to be drafted No. 1 overall. I want to be the greatest person, the greatest player that ever played football.’ I’m not joking. That’s what he’s telling me.”

Prior to Egbuka’s junior season of high school, he spent a few days with NFL legend Jerry Rice at The Opening. There, Egbuka told Rice that he appreciated the guidance and teaching he was providing him, but to rest assured, one day he’d be better than the former 49ers great. Is it possible to be that confident and still be known by family, friends, coaches and teammates as humble? Apparently it is.

“That was just me being honest,” Egbuka said. “That’s just how I felt about it. I thought I’d tell him because I was talking to his son, Brenden, I knew his son, and I’ve talked to Jerry before. But I mean, why not tell him? Why would I not aim to be better than the best?”

There is one goal for Emeka Egbuka: Be better than anyone he lines up against, day in and day out. He’d be more than happy to beat his mother on the football field if it came down to it, not just in a game of spoons.

“I don’t really care who I’m playing,” the future Ohio State receiver said. “If my mom was lined up across from me, I’m still going to score on her.”

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Baseball was the first love for Emeka Egbuka. (Rhonda Ogilvie/Courtesy)

‘Ohio State was different’ for Emeka Egbuka

In the world of athletics, keeping score is everything. For Emeka Egbuka, it was the only thing.

He had known for almost a year that Ohio State would be difficult for any other school to overtake in his recruitment, but he never wanted to commit without being completely sure of his choice. College football recruiting has become a circus, and the No. 9-ranked recruit in 2021 refused to be a sideshow.

He wanted to make sure his head and his heart were aligned.

“In the back of my head I knew [Ohio State] was different from the first time I visited,” Egbuka said. “I just wanted to make sure of everything, to leave no stone unturned. That’s why I visited Oklahoma. I kind of just knew [my decision] in the back of my head, but kept it quiet from everyone just because I didn’t want to follow my heart, so to speak. I wanted to look at the facts and make sure that it was a logical decision. And it ended up being a logical decision, and it’s the place that I find the most comfortable.”

The choice sounds easy, but it wasn’t. It was a multi-layered, systematic approach that ended with Ohio State on top and two schools, Oklahoma and Washington, tied for second.

“He prefaced it all by saying that this is just a guide for me to see if the data matches my gut feeling, all right?” Rhonda Ogilvie, who works as an IT specialist, said. “And I loved that, because it showed me that Emeka was trying so hard to be objective, to be rational. On the scores, Ohio State won, and Oklahoma and [Washington] tied behind the Buckeyes. The only areas that Ohio State scored lowest was the depth chart and the distance from home, obviously.”

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The scorecard used by Emeka Egbuka to make his college decision. Ohio State came out on top. (Rhonda Ogilvie/Courtesy)

Henry Egbuka, a civil engineer, found other reasons to applaud the diligent and thoughtful approach by his son. It was something he and Emeka talked about early in his recruiting process.

“I said, I’m not going to try to influence your decision or where to go, but I can tell you where not to go,” the elder Egbuka said. “If I had a bad vibe about a place I can say: Don’t go here. I’m not going to choose where you can go. But when you want to tell when you want to go someplace, you better do some kind of decision matrix or something to explain the pros and cons of all the different places, and then we can discuss it.

“Don’t go telling me one of your factors, like ‘my buddy’s going there’ or ‘I like their jerseys’ or something silly. You know what I mean? It has to be like tangible stuff.”

And it was. The list for Egbuka was varied and complex, exploring everything from faith to life after football, from the type of degree he can earn to the chance of becoming a first-round NFL draft pick.

Ohio State was the choice, and not every coach Egbuka called agreed with it. Some of those coaches called Henry to voice displeasure. But the numbers, he said, spoke loud and clear.

“Emeka felt really nervous and sad, because a couple of years have passed and he has been so close to these coaches, really close to them,” his father said. “So he felt he was disappointing them. If he could, he would have wanted to go to all three schools, so the only way you can tell them and be fair is that you came up with a decision based on something objective.

“They’ve been calling me, coaches have been, asking me: ‘Come on man, how did you do this?'” Henry said. “And I had to say: ‘Listen, it’s not about you, or the next guy. It’s just about looking at things objectively, dispassionately and crunching the numbers: This is the best fit for my kid.’ I’d feel bad if I was steering my kids the wrong direction, but I feel good about it. Ohio State is the best fit for him.”

Emeka Egbuka brings loyalty to Ohio State

Now that he’s committed, things will get tougher for Emeka Egbuka.

He’s spent so much time in the last year avoiding the glare of the recruiting spotlight that he admits he’s fallen behind in getting to know his future teammates. He never wanted to allow himself to be swayed toward one school or another because of friendships with other recruits.

But now that his decision is final, he’s tasked with making a decision on early-enrollment, though that’s almost entirely contingent on what the state of Washington decides about a potential spring football season. He wants to win a state title with his friends, and he wants to end his high school career as the state’s all-time leader receiving leader. That’s why he’s been hesitant about finalizing enrollment plans and why he chose to wait out the season at Steilacoom rather than going somewhere else to play, like the IMG Academy in Florida, months ago.

“He’s loyal and he’s committed to our program here,” Davies said. “That’s not his his style. He knows how important he is to this program and he wants to do everything he can for this program. He’s just not interested in doing what everyone else wants him to do. He’s very methodical. Meticulous. He’s gonna create his own path.

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Emeka Egbuka has had a very close group of friends since he was in the second grade. (Rhonda Ogilvie/Courtesy)

“There are certain things that are important to him. His family. His friends. His teammates. The recognition and you know, that flashy stuff like social media, that’s not what he’s about. He’s about about playing this game and his work ethic and commitment to being the best friend and teammate and son he can be. He’s definitely different. What other kid chooses to go play in maybe the most crowded and talented wide receiver room in the country?”

That is, perhaps, the million-dollar question about Emeka Egbuka. His answer was perhaps the most telling when it comes to exactly what makes him different. There’s not a single person in his life who’d begrudge him if he opted for the path of less resistance by going to Washington or Oklahoma, but that would’ve been a disservice to himself.

“He’s dreaming that big and he believes in himself so much, why would it be afraid of competition?” his father said. “He wants to be in there with the best. He will fight for it. You know what I mean? He could’ve chosen somewhere else where he knows he could be a star as a freshman. But at Ohio State, he may have to sit on the bench or learn to stand on the sidelines for a little bit so he can prove himself.”

“A lot of kids are afraid of that. I’m so proud he’s not afraid of that.”

Goal is to ‘leave a mark’ with Buckeyes

Emeka Egbuka is not afraid.

He’s grateful and proud to be from a small town outside of Seattle where the little things matter as much as the big dreams. He knows that Steilacoom helped build him.

“This is my home,” he said. “But I’m proof that you can make it no matter where you are. I’m a prime example of that. You just have to keep your head down and work. The mentality and mindset is different here, and the truth is that I made it this far because of all my teammates, the way we’ve been competing with each other since the second grade, the way we want to push each other further. I made it to this point because of my parents and the sacrifices they’ve made and my coaches and everyone here who has supported me.”

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Emeka Egbuka has left his mark on Steilacoom and the town left its mark on him, too. (Rhonda Ogilvie/Courtesy)

So with all that love, all that support in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, why would Egbuka want to leave it?

“The University of Washington doesn’t define what home is,” he said. “Home is the people here. The ones that watched me grow up and will support me in the things still to come. It wasn’t just the high school or the elementary school or the football team. It’s the bakery that’s owned by my friend’s grandparents. It’s the welding shop. It’s all the stuff like that. Everyone just has my back here. And that’s the feeling I got from Ohio State as well.

“The people of Washington who loved me that wanted me to go there, are still going to be supportive of me going to Ohio State. They’re not going to forget about me when I come back — especially if I leave my mark on the game.”

That’s obviously not a normal goal.

But nothing about Emeka Egbuka ever has been.

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